Fighting for a school

Downtown residents want old Jones Prep repurposed for neighborhood high

07/25/2012 10:00 PM


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As the South Loop, West Loop and downtown have built up over the past decade or so, living in the center of the city has become increasingly desirable.

New high rises sporting luxurious amenities have sprouted up, and young, well-off people have come to live in the center of the city — a choice that was unpopular and perhaps even unthinkable to many as recently as the 1990s.

As city living shifted became more popular, Chicago’s tax base was burgeoned by the new demographics calling the city home.

Many young people eventually planned to make a run back to the suburbs when the time came to have children and raise a family. But the real estate crash and the ensuing recession took that option off the table for many, and others simply didn’t want to give up the allure of downtown living.

As a result, the number of school-age kids living in and around downtown Chicago has ballooned, and many parents are realizing the high school options available to them at Chicago Public Schools are less than desirable.

Now, a group of parents in the South Loop are taking a stand and pushing for a new high school serving students in and around downtown, a building that would serve the families bringing their kids up in the city’s center.

A coalition that includes several South Loop neighborhood groups is pushing to repurpose the old Jones College Prep High School building as a neighborhood high school. The building is slated to be replaced in fall 2013 by a new seven-story building right next door at 700 S. State St.

The new Jones will remain a highly competitive selective enrollment high school, but Ald. Bob Fioretti got Chicago Public Schools officials to agree that the new school would include 300 seats for students from the neighborhood (75 seats per high school class).

But John Jacoby, a neighborhood activist leading the charge to reuse the old building, said that simply won’t be enough space, and people aren’t fond of their other high school options around the city.

“It’s not going to resolve our need for a neighborhood high school,” Jacoby said. “Frankly, people will move to the suburbs before they’ll send their kids to those kinds of schools.”

The two neighborhood high schools that serve downtown students are in bad shape. The South Loop’s neighborhood high school is Wendell Phillips Academy High School, located at 244 E. Pershing Road in Bronzeville. Phillips is on probation with CPS: Only 40 percent of its students graduate in five years, and only 11 percent met standards on state tests in 2011.

For New Eastside and Near North residents, the neighborhood high school is Wells Community Academy at 936 N. Ashland Ave. in East Ukrainian Village. Wells is in slightly better shape: 59 percent of its students graduate within five years, but also only 11 percent of its students met standards on state tests.

Both schools are almost entirely low-income students, and have almost no white students.

South Loop residents’ hopes for a new neighborhood high school clashes with CPS’ original plan. Released last year along with the Public Building Commission, the city body that handles construction projects, the original intent was to tear down the old Jones building, straighten out the intersection of Harrison and State streets, and build a park with athletic facilities for Jones.

However, the new school was paid for out of TIF money — which must be authorized by the city council — and Fioretti only approved enough money to build the new school, not tear down the old one. He won’t approve TIF money to demolish the old school, he said, and he doesn’t think the school board has the money to do it themselves.

Fioretti has been an outspoken proponent of repurposing the old Jones. Demolishing the old building would cost $10 million, he said; for $20 million, it could be upgraded and put into good working condition. Jacoby said an upgrade would give the building a green roof, new energy-efficient windows and new lockers, among other things it badly needs.

“The biggest economic power in this city are residents between 25 and 55, as they try to raise families here,” Fioretti said at a community meeting Tuesday night. “We need to keep them here.”

CPS has been mum on plans for the old Jones building in the last year, since the school board passed the resolution formally stating that it wanted to tear it down on July 27, but Fioretti and his staff expect they’ll make a formal decision on repurposing the school by the end of September.

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By Robert Austin from Little Rock, AR
Posted: 07/26/2012 2:56 PM

A new idea to deal with the CPS budget crisis, with a nationwide petition to Congress, for problems like this affect teachers everywhere across America: cut administrative costs. Abusive and overpaid administrators are the real problem -- and they don't even teach anyone. To find our petition, which explains itself, simply google "education petition Congress cut administrators pay" -- and then please spread the word. Thank you.